Chitral Valley, Pakistan - July 21: A view of Tirich Mir, the highest peak of Hindkush range in upper Chitral at 25,289 feet high on July 21, 2016 in Chitral Valley, Pakistan. (Photo by Insiya Syed for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Kill or be killed: the charming cut-throats of the wild frontier

Visiting the site of a long-forgotten siege in the Hindu Kush

This article is taken from the August-September 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The Pakistan Airlines Fokker Friendship, a small turboprop, weaved through the high snow mountains of the Hindu Kush an hour after we left Islamabad. The mountain people were isolated from the rest of the world for several months each winter by heavy snowfalls that blocked all the passes and were too dangerous for turboprops. But it was late summer, and the pilot speared through a gap in the mountains. We landed in a valley close by a small town, Chitral.

I had come to that faraway place in search of a mysterious Afghan tribe, the Kafirs, who claimed as their ancestors the Macedonian troops accompanying Alexander the Great’s invading army in 333BC. But while there, I came across a tale of British military heroism at the besieged Chitral fortress. It enthralled the British public, including Queen Victoria, back in 1895 — but has since been largely forgotten. 

Nudging the remote north-eastern edge of Afghanistan, at 4,902 feet above sea level, Chitral’s air was at first gasp spare and icy. An open-air Jeep was waiting for me at the small terminal. “I’m Ali,” the driver said. “Prince Siraj ul-Mulk sent me to pick you up.” 

A provincial capital, Chitral bore the rugged look of an ancient land, hardly touched by the modern world. A maze of wheat fields mingled with orchards whose clusters of densely-leafed trees were laden with apples, apricots and walnuts. At the head of the valley, the glacial Kunar River surged towards the town, then swerved just before the bazaar, and splashed its way past a crumbling fortress. 

The Jeep edged through the crowded, narrow streets of Shahi Bazaar, where robed merchants with bushy beards sat on carpets in hole-in-the-wall shops. They sold an eclectic spread, from assault rifles to antique flintlocks to washing powder, fake Nike running shoes and fistfuls of much-used US dollars. No women were in the bazaar, not even in the burqa cover-all cloaks, except for little girls, hand-in-hand with their fathers, as they shopped. Did they fear the day when, aged nine or ten, they were stopped by their fathers from going into the bazaar with them ever again? It must be a traumatic rite of passage. 

The sun was drifting below the snowy mountains as Ali drove along a narrow road by the Kunar River, and up a steep hill to a boutique hotel perched on a ridge overlooking the valley and the town. Dominating it and the valley was the mighty, snow-clad Tirich Mir, the highest mountain in the Hindu Kush at 25,230 feet. It hovered over the town and its many villages like a medieval lord looking down from his castle on his serfs and fields. 

Prince Siraj ul-Mulk, a descendant of the traditional ruling family, owned the hotel. His grandfather was Chitral’s last king. The Chitral valley guarded a vital chain of passes on the ancient Silk Road linking Afghanistan with China. For more than 1,500 years, Persians, Greeks, Arabs and even China’s Tang dynasty emperors ruled or held sway over Chitral. They were drawn there by its strategic Hindu Kush location and its abundant natural resources. They included timber, minerals, hard-working people, and fertile pasture for agriculture and raising livestock. 

Siraj’s royal family seized the throne in 1571. The ul-Mulks’ ferocity kept them there for four centuries. The British political agent in nearby Gilgit, Surgeon-Major George Robertson, wrote in 1895: “Their excesses and revengeful murders went hand in hand with pleasant manners and a pleasing light-heartedness.” He described Chitral as “the land of mirth and murder”. The ruling family remained in power until 1969 when Pakistan unilaterally ended Chitral’s semi-autonomous status. 

Had Chitral remained an independent monarchy, Siraj could have become Chitral’s mehtar or king. But times have changed. Siraj had one wife, while his ancestor, Aman, as befits a Hindu Kush monarch, had 60 wives and concubines. They were closeted in purdah and gave him 80 sons. His daughters were never officially counted because they were destined to be married off by their father to other powerful rulers and warlords to cement strategic alliances. 

Where his ancestors had several palaces, Siraj lived in a bungalow by his hotel. He was elegantly, but simply, clad in dark pants, a pastel shirt and a perky Chitrali beret. In contrast, Colonel Algernon Durand, a hero of The Great Game, was impressed by the splendour of Aman’s garb, and of his courtiers, when he made a state visit to the king in Chitral in 1888. Aman was acclaimed there as the greatest-ever mehtar. 

Durand, a courageous officer in the British army, was the brother of Sir Mortimer Durand, who delineated the mountainous 1,660-mile frontier between Afghanistan and what is now Pakistan at the British Raj’s western edge. It is still known as the Durand Line. 

That summer, Algernon Durand spent months visiting the Hindu Kush’s kings, khans, and warlords in an attempt to negotiate an end to raiders, often in cahoots with the rulers, plundering caravans on one of the Silk Road’s major routes. But there was an even greater purpose, a strategic move in The Great Game. “The importance of this portion of the frontier lies mainly in the proximity of the Russian outposts,” he wrote, “if Russia is not to enter into dissertations as to the feasibility of her attacking India. The Great Empire [Russia], the coming shadow of which Napoleon saw with prophetic eye — is expanding in many directions.”

Russia had considered invading India at the end of the eighteenth century, a deeply destabilising incursion proposed in St Petersburg by Prince Paul, the son and heir apparent of Catherine the Great. She wisely turned him down. But when she died, Tsar Paul I in 1801 proposed to Napoleon Bonaparte that Russia and France invade the subcontinent with 50,000 Cossacks and 50,000 French soldiers. 

After initial interest, Napoleon declined the offer, asking Paul how he proposed to “get to India across a barren and almost savage country”. Paul was soon after assassinated by his own officers, but the Russian dream of invading the subcontinent did not die with him.

Despite constant turmoil, the British saw Chitral as a vital component of the extensive alliances it was building across the Hindu Kush as a barrier to Russian ambitions. Under an 1885 mutual protection pact with Chitral’s ruler, Aman ul-Mulk, a contingent of Indian sepoys was stationed at Chitral as a warning to the Russians not to meddle there. 

During the month Durand spent in Chitral in 1888, his friendship with the king grew close. When Aman had a band of captured robbers sold into slavery as punishment, he considered gifting to Durand all the robbers’ wives and children, creating in a finger snap the colonel’s own harem. But the king had begun to understand British sensibilities regarding slavery and polygamy, and instead offered the families as gifts to Durand’s Pashtun soldiers. Durand declined the offer. He later wrote: “I had much difficulty in persuading him (the king) to leave the unfortunates in peace.” 

Chitral was a major waystation on the Silk Road and during Durand’s stay; he saw merchants arriving and departing on their two-humped camels and sturdy stallions. The colourful scenes were much the same as Rudyard Kipling described in Kim:

There were all manner of Northern folk, tending tethered ponies and kneeling camels; loading and unloading bails and bundles; drawing water for the evening meal at the creaking well-windlasses; piling grass before the wild-eyed, shrieking stallions; cuffing the surly caravan dogs; paying off the caravan drivers; taking on new grooms; swearing, shouting, arguing and chaffering in the packed square.

Nevertheless, Colonel Durand remained clear-sighted about the political realities. Aman, he wrote, “was steeped to the lips in treachery; his hands were crimson with the blood of his near relations; two out of three of his brothers he had murdered; his third brother was in exile in Kabul.” Yet, cautioned Durand, “such a character cannot be judged by our standards; in the wild Mahomedan states it is always, and always must be, a case of kill or be killed among the sons of a ruling chief after their father’s death.”

In 1892, Aman’s sudden death, probably from heart disease, acted like a starting gun for the inevitable bloodbath. Chitral was plunged into regicidal turmoil. One of his sons, Afzul, plotted to kill his many half-brothers and grab the throne. 

The king’s younger brother, Sher Afzul, another principal contender, was living in Kabul as the guest of the Emir of Afghanistan, Abdur Rahman Khan. Colonel Durand met Sher there. He described him as, “a good-looking young man with beautiful eyes and well-shaped face, the mouth being the bad part, the lower lip of which was heavy”. Durand was not easily charmed: “At heart he was a pure savage. He was, under his cloak of bonhomie, generosity and transparent honesty, the most persistent plotter, and the most treacherous and ruthless foe.” 

After journeying secretly from Kabul with a small band of supporters in 1895, Sher arrived in Chitral in the dead of night, attacked the palace, shot dead his nephew, and claimed the throne. Meanwhile Sher’s half-brother, Nizam, advanced on Chitral with 1,000 troops, forcing Sher to flee back to Kabul. But Nizam himself was subsequently shot in the back by his teenage half-brother, Amir, when the brothers were on a hunting trip with their trained hawks (Nizam planned to kill Amir on the same trip, but he was too slow). 

Amir turned for protection to Umra Khan, a powerful Pashtun warlord who ruled Swat, 166 miles to the south of Chitral, who had married one of the old king’s numerous daughters. Amir should have been wary because Umra had murdered his own brother to seize power and he duly betrayed Amir by marching on Chitral with his army of 5,000 battle-hardened Pashtun warriors. Toppling Amir, Umra replaced him with his compliant 14-year-old brother, Shuja (grandfather of the present-day Prince Siraj). 

“How does it feel to be the descendant of such cutthroats?” I joked to Siraj, after a few days more a friend than a mere hotel guest. “Only the strongest survived, it was kill or be killed, and they passed on their genes to us,” he smiled. “It helps when we play our traditional enemies from Gilgit in mountain polo every July at the Shandur Pass. It’s warfare on horseback with no rules.”

The British had remained neutral at the outset of the dynastic bloodbath after Mehtar Amin died in 1892. But the Viceroy in far-off Calcutta, Alexander Bruce, was concerned at the possible consequences for Britain of the ul-Mulks continuing familial slaughter or the forming of an alliance with the Russians. 

So, three years after Aman’s death, Major George Robertson, the British political agent at Gilgit, marched 170 miles to Chitral across the high snowy mountains to help put on the throne an ul-Mulk willing to maintain alliance with Britain. 

Robertson was accompanied by 400 sepoys, mostly tough Kashmiris, Gurkhas and Sikhs, men born into famed warrior tribes. He was determined to end the bloody battle for the throne and settle the dynastic turmoil with the British choice for king. In the meantime, backed by the powerful emir of Afghanistan, Sher secretly returned from Kabul to Chitral as an ally of the warlord, Umra Khan. 

On March 3, 1895, Major Robertson and his troops, caught by surprise, retreated into Chitral’s fortified riverside palace. Robertson took with him his choice as the Chitral king, the 14-year-old Shuja ul-Mulk and his senior courtiers. Sher, Umra Khan and their 5,000 Pashtun warriors immediately put them under siege. 

The same day, Robertson sent out a sortie of 150 Gurkha and Kashmiri sepoys to determine the strength of the besiegers’ forces. During the heavy firefight, the Pashtun warriors, many armed with breach-loading rifles, killed 23 sepoys and wounded 33 others. During the desperate retreat to the fort, Surgeon-Captain Harry Whitchurch bravely carried a badly-wounded captain on his back to the safety of the fort under a barrage of enemy fire. He was later awarded the Victoria Cross for his bravery.

…the besieged men heard the fearful sound of picks under the ground

Well into the siege, the besieged men heard the fearful sound of picks under the ground. From a nearby house, the enemy were tunnelling beneath the fort to blow it up. They held noisy parties at the house, day and night, to disguise the noise made by the miners. But now, the tunnellers were under the fort.

Robertson sent a hundred Sikh sepoys outside the walls to storm the tunnel just as the miners were about to light the fuse on a huge cache of explosives. The sepoys ruthlessly bayonetted to death the 38 miners they found underground.

In his study, Siraj showed me his collection of princely assassins’ daggers from that time. Each was a mingling of a cruel butcher’s carving knife and a work of art, the razor-sharp, curved blades on both sides engraved with poetic calligraphy. It would be like an English assassin having a poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson inscribed on his dagger’s blade. 

One of Siraj’s daggers, a 12-inch-long Pashtun weapon, big and sharp enough to kill a bull, had a small knob of silver metal on the end of the blade, as if its maker made a mistake in forging it. Siraj smiled at my naïveté. “That was deliberate,” he explained. “The assassin put deadly poison on the knob to be sure he’d kill the victim with a single thrust of the dagger.” Siraj smiled wryly. “We’ve given up fighting with guns and swords, and now do battle on the mountain polo field.” The change did wonders for ul-Mulk longevity judging from his father, Khushwaqt. The son of Chitral’s last king was 86.

Later that morning, Siraj and I drove north to where his father lived in a bungalow inside the fort in Mastuj, on the Chitral side of the Shandur Pass. The precipitously high dirt road was shadowed on both sides by dozens of 20,000-feet-high snowy peaks. All around was the eerie silence of the high mountains. Here and there among the mountain villages, I spied one remnant of British colonialism — youngsters playing cricket on grassy pitches.

Following Central Asian tradition, the Chitral king appointed his son, Khushwaqt, as Mastuj’s governor on the very day he was born. A month later, following a very effective centuries-old tradition, his father sent the baby boy there to be raised by a noble Mastuj family. “I grew up knowing the people and languages of the place I’d one day rule,” the lively old man told me as we sat on his bungalow verandah. It overlooked a grassy field within the fort’s crumbling walls. “When I was four, my father married me to a 6-year-old Mastuj noble girl, Razia Sultana, Siraj’s mother. When I met my father for the first time since then, at age 9, instead of greeting me, he pressed a lighted cigarette against my face. He was testing my toughness. I passed the test without crying out, and so he patted me on the head.”

Khushwaqt, true to his ul-Mulk martial heritage, became an influential colonel under British colonial rule, subduing rebellious Pashtun tribesmen in the turbulent Northwest Frontier of the Raj bordering Afghanistan. He told me he enjoyed the battles and skirmishes, which he recalled with smile, “the rough and tumble.” Even now, as an old man, he membered the bloody royal ul-Mulk infighting with nostalgia. “When the British put an end to it, they spoiled the fun,” he smiled. 

That reminded me of a description of the Chitralis by Major Robertson, who knew them well and commanded the defence of the Chitral fortress when under siege by the ul-Mulks in 1895. “There are few more treacherous people than the Chitralis, and they have a wonderful capacity for cold-blooded cruelty; yet none are kinder to little children. They have pleasant manners and engaging light-heartedness. Their vanity is easily injured, and they are vengeful, and venal, but they are charmingly picturesque and admirable companions.”

Returning to Chitral next morning, Siraj and I drove to the riverside fortress. Its 25-foot-high walls were made from compressed mud, rocks and logs laid horizontally. Blackened scorch marks still marred the logs where Umra Khan’s Pashtun army tried to burn down the fortress and force out the beleaguered defenders in the 1895 siege. Pashtun snipers perched on sturdy branches in the leafy maple trees in front of the fortress to pick off any of Major Robertson’s Sikh soldiers and their British officers who broke cover inside the fort. 

“An Indian sepoy stitched together a Union Jack from scrap material and Major Robertson ran it up the tower flagpole in defiance of the attackers,” Siraj said. Umra Khan did not mount a direct assault on the fort but tried to force the British to surrender or face starvation. The warlord accompanied that aim with an ancient form of asymmetric, psychological warfare. Each night thousands of attackers screamed nonstop abuse at the fort while beating drums and playing Hindu Kush bagpipes. The stoic British and Indian sepoys were unmoved. 

Even though the fort only had food for a month, Robertson leaked to Umra Khan a lie that the fortress had plenty of food and ammunition. He was determined to hold firm until a relief force, he hoped, would arrive from Gilgit, 170 miles east across the snow mountains. Water was no problem. I saw how the fortress backed directly onto the Kunar River.

Unknown to the attackers, the defenders’ food began running out towards the end of the 48-day siege. In his subsequent book, entitled in a splendidly modest British way The Story of a Minor Siege, Robertson wrote, “We sat down to our frugal dinner of horse meat and spoiled rice. The odour was appalling. There was something about our horses, or their feeding, that made them uneatable” (the horses were their beloved steeds. One of his officers declared he would “as soon eat dog”). Additionally, the fort had a stock of rum that Major Robertson described as having, “a particularly coarse flavour and odour”. Each officer was given a pint every twelve days to boost morale.

At the end, the defenders were running very short of ammunition, but relief was on its way. Early in the siege, a sepoy managed to slip out from the fortress under cover of darkness and head for the distant British base at Gilgit. 

“Alerted to the siege, and the defenders’ desperate plight, the British army garrison at Gilgit sent 900 troops on a forced march across the snow-bound Shandur Pass at 12,000 feet above sea level,” Siraj said, as we walked around the fort’s grassy quadrangle. “They brought infantry and cavalry units, as well as four batteries of mountain guns. Often the troops were up to their waists in snow as they struggled over the pass.”

To ensure victory, the British army despatched a further 15,000 troops from its Peshawar base, 240 miles south of Chitral. The force contained some of Britain’s finest infantry regiments, including the King’s Royal Rifle Corps and the Gordon Highlanders. They were accompanied by 9,000 camp followers and 30,000 pack animals, mostly donkeys and camels. 

The unit had to fight its way through the territories of hostile rulers. In storming the vital Malakand Pass, the British and Indian troops overcame 12,000 warriors of the local khan in fierce hand-to-hand fighting. More than 500 of the khan’s men were killed, as against just 11 sepoys. Conspicuous in the fight were the Gordon Highlanders, clad in their kilts even in the snow.

So, from the south and east, the British relief forces marched at full speed to Chitral, racing to be first to end the siege and rescue the brave defenders. 

But on 18 April, inside the fort, with the rescuers still miles away, the defenders were mystified by an eerie silence outside the walls. Major Robertson sent a soldier out of the gates to investigate. He came back incredulous. “He reported that no one was there,” Siraj said. “The siege had ended. Umra Khan and Sher, hearing from spies that a large British rescue force was advancing on two fronts, hurried away with their warriors.” 

The Gilgit troops beat the Peshawar regiments in the race to reach the fort. Robertson and the other defenders had been on starvation rations for days and were described as “walking skeletons.” The emir in Kabul hated the British, scorning them as alien infidel invaders, and gave shelter and protection to the fleeing Umra Khan. Sher ul-Mulk was not so lucky. He was captured by the British and exiled in India. They never allowed him to return to his homeland.

When word of the garrison’s relief reached London, the courageous feat of crossing the snow-bound Shandur Pass was hailed by newspapers as one of history’s most remarkable marches. The British public went wild with joy when The Times correspondent accompanying the rescuers filed his report. 

Queen Victoria, as avid a follower of the siege as her subjects, personally bestowed a knighthood on Major Robertson. Among the British defenders and rescuers, one later became a field marshal (William Robertson — still the British Army’s only enlistee in the ranks to reach the very top), nine became generals and several were granted knighthoods.

Following the siege, Chitral’s new king agreed to make it a protectorate, defended by Britain’s armed forces (six companies of Punjabi sepoys in Chitral town and a battalion of Gurkhas at the Drosh fort) and represented to the outside world by British diplomats. 

Britain had shown itself not only willing but able to defend its interests

Britain had shown itself not only willing but able to defend its interests even in the most inhospitable parts of the Hindu Kush, a determination doubtless noted by Russia. And in becoming a British protectorate, what Khushwaqt termed the “rough and tumble” of Chitral’s dynastic bloodbath was ended. Perhaps it was not such a “minor siege” after all. 

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